Blog written by Esther Nyaga
Growing up is hard or at least it’s not easy. Navigating through the strange unknown territories of life and not knowing what lies ahead is disconcerting. It can be testing, or at least it was for me. That’s why I believe it’s crucial that young people have someone to walk with, and guide them through, the journey of life.
“The Talk”, as many parents or guardians would call it, is often perceived to be an uncomfortable encounter that both the child and guardian would prefer to avoid. I mean, who really wants their teenage daughter asking where babies come from or something far much worse? It is deemed particularly awkward and inappropriate in our African culture to engage in such dialogue and most people do their best to evade the conversation completely. In attempting to dodge the conversation though, perceptions like ‘children are bought from hospitals’ are extremely widespread.
Adolescence is a transitional stage composed of physical, emotional, and cognitive human development that occurs before the onset of puberty and ends with the entrance into adulthood. Sexuality, defined as the sexual expression of interest, orientation, and preference, is a normal and healthy part of adolescence. Adolescent sexuality encompasses multiple factors, such as developing intimate partnerships, expressing gender identity, and exploring how sexual orientation, religion, and culture interact. Adolescent sexuality has changed over the past 50 years, with adolescents now reaching physical maturity earlier and marrying later.
The consequence of the ever-growing curiosity embodied by teenagers nowadays is that with access to multiple sources of information, teenagers have developed completely different representations of sexuality than their parents or guardians, which often leaves older generations with their mouths left wide open in astonishment. For example, the internet is full of information regarding sexuality that may or may not be true, and this can be a curse and a blessing; new avenues for acquiring knowledge are opened up, but much of this information may be false. The ultimate point here is that as a parent or guardian, you do not want your children finding out about sexuality in this way and making decisions based on the potentially inaccurate information.
That is why Village HopeCore International (HopeCore) runs a Youth Peer Providers (YPPs) Program. This program was started in 2013 with the objective of reducing early pregnancies among young girls. Looking back to when I was growing up I saw young girls conceive at a tender age and this situation forced them to leave school. This was not a pretty picture and is obviously not good for the development of either our community or the nation. Our program seeks to fill gaps in sexual and reproductive health (SRH) education and services in the community and school system. The primary goal of this program is to strengthen our own capacity as an organization in helping to improve the SRH of the community through a combination of educational, psychosocial, and medical services. Other programmatic goals include increasing awareness of SRH in the community, especially among the youth, and empowering youth and other members of the community to advocate for their own sexual and reproductive health.
Over the years, we have had numerous successes as a program and this can be attributed to a number of factors, the majority of which stem from our approach to open up the conversation about SHR with young people as soon as possible i.e. as early as 9 years old. Many people have and will always say it is inappropriate to talk to such young children about issues related to sexuality but we see, think and feel otherwise. We believe that knowledge is power. We empower young individuals in the community and in schools who can then empower their peers. The trained youths are known as our Youth Peer Providers (YPPs). Our YPPs undergo vigorous training on SRH topics and go out into the community to educate their peers. They are skilled in counseling and are readily available to help their fellow youths.
Someone might ask why we choose to use a peer to peer approach? Well, the answer is that research suggests that people are more likely to hear and personalize messages if they believe the messenger is similar to them and faces the same concerns and pressures that they do, and thus they are more likely to change their attitudes and behaviours. Numerous studies have demonstrated that peers influence adolescent health behaviours significantly – not only in regards to sexuality but also in regards to violence and substance use. Peer education draws on the credibility that young people have with one another, leverages the power of role modeling, and provides flexibility in meeting the diverse needs of today’s youth. Peer education can support young people in developing positive group norms and in making healthy decisions about sex. Also, youths are in contact with people their own age much more than they are in contact with adults, therefore enhancing the opportunity for engagement. With this in mind, we have tried to ensure that each region in our Sub County has a YPP who is fully equipped with the knowledge and information they need in order to ensure that their fellow youths can easily access them for guidance, support, and information.
The major challenge to enhanced SHR knowledge in the community is that parents and teachers are consistently evading their responsibility to address this issue by shifting it to each other, meaning parents always think that teachers will talk to the children while teachers think that parents will and are talking to their children. This results in young persons being left hanging in the air and resorting to getting information from all the wrong sources. The YPP program resolves this miscommunication and fills in gaps of knowledge about SRH that so desperately need to be filled.